The Incal by Alejandro Jodorowsky
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
It was a good Christmas this year. Among other things, I found beneath the tree a book sometimes said to be the greatest comic ever written, The Incal. I don’t know about that, but it does seem a sort of Citizen Kane of science fiction graphic novels. It’s written by Jodorowsky with art by Moebius, both of whom are names that loom large in the background of lots of science fiction whether or not you’ve actually heard of them. The comic was originally published in the 1980s in French and is supposed to have been pivotal in defining the scope and possibility of the medium for doing epic, genre-bending science fiction. Jodorowsky was at one point working on an screen adaptation of Dune (late 1970s, prior to the David Lynch version) and though abandoned you can see the influences here. Moebius went on to do art and storyboards for things like Tron, Aliens, and The Fifth Element, which is why much of The Incal seems eerily familiar. It was a test bed for much of what defined scifi for the next decade.
As far as narrative goes though, the bones are bare. We’re abruptly dropped into the life and mishaps of John DiFool, a rumpled, selfish, slovenly private investigator, who stumbles upon a powerful conscious entity/artifact called the Incal and who quickly becomes the target of random groups and forces angling to get their hands on it. Characters are introduced just as abruptly as well, without any real backgrounding or development: evil swamp queen, superhuman bounty hunter, dog-headed marauder, and topless animistic love interest. Dialog is clunky, with characters frequently explaining themselves, their feelings, and their motivations. Like Citizen Kane, looking back on it now it seems pretty wooden.
But in the midst this Jodorowsky spins out a dizzying, fractal-like story that spans multiple galaxies and ranges from slum planets (with loads of social satire) to the gold-encrusted galactic capital to watery prison worlds and beyond. Even though the first half of the book is basically one long chase scene and the second a lot of random things happening in quick succession, each thing is brilliantly new, fusing fantasy, science fiction, and mysticism (the main characters are supposed to each embody characters or aspects from the Tarot), making it a worthy read.
It’s the art of Moebius though that marks this a classic. Jodorowsky’s writing is haphazard and exuberant, but he doesn’t provide any depth of character or real explanations of plot. The only revelations that come in the book are in the shattering, full-page vistas by Moebius. What could in prose be a run-of-the-mill deus ex machina, for instance, becomes in this medium a gorgeous and sublime epiphany.
Moebius’s art is multi-form and morphic. It’s gritty when necessary, cartoonish when appropriate, and epic, sweeping, or detailed as needed. Packed crowd scenes feel almost Where’s Waldo-esque, aspects of the Great Darkness foreshadow the segmented horrors of Aliens, and the detailed techno panels feel familiar from classic Star Wars story boards or concept sketches. Overlaid with this all, the colors are sharp and vivid, making the whole sweeping dream-like tableau electric and lively. It’s easy to see why this was groundbreaking at the time (and scandalous, considering some scenes made it originally censored in its first US release) .
The edition of the work I found under the Christmas tree is packaged in hardcover with high-quality printing that I can only imagine helps recapture what it must have originally felt like reading it. With that and the added touch of a ribbon bookmark, the outside of The Incal feels as weighty and significant and the interior is trippy and avante garde, like you’re holding a piece of visual and literary science fiction history (as you are).